Why is it that civilizations quarrel? Mainstream Western thinking rejects the question, treating culture as an arbitrary existential choice (Martin Heidegger) or a language sui generis (Ludwig Wittgenstein). In the mind of the 20th century, cultures, like lifestyles, simply exist and do not bear comparison. I shall argue, on the contrary, that common modes of prayer provide a standard for identifying cultural conflicts. In a recent essay (Why Islam Baffles America, Apr 15) I derided American studies of Islam that ignored the spiritual experience of the ordinary Muslim, citing some thoughts of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Since then Muslims, Christians and Jews have flooded my postbox with pertinent questions regarding Islamic prayer, which I shall address below.
Not the unexamined life, but rather the unremembered life is not worth living. Without our little allotment of eternity, we would be disconsolate, or what is worse, European. In only one form of human activity do we entreat directly for our portion of eternity, and that is prayer. Prescience of mortality makes devout men pray frequently. The atheist, who shakes his fist at mortality, prays only when mortality gets his undivided attention by the usual means. That is why the common liturgy of communal prayer – as opposed to individual or esoteric prayer – betrays the inner secrets of cultures, more than laws or literature. What is culture but the stuff out of which we weave the waking dream of immortality?
Culture enables past generations to speak to the living, and the passing generation to speak to the future. For us to be remembered, not merely replaced like the beasts, our culture must continue. Only in organized congregational prayer can we link the divine promise of redemption to our abiding memory by those who will follow us on earth. Comparative theology is an exercise in frustration, for it is a slippery matter to apply the toolkit of reason to another man’s revelation. Alain Besancon (Has Islam become the issue?, May 3, 2004) offers nothing beyond theological polemic. If we leave aside theology as such, and restrict our attention to communal prayer as such, much becomes clear. The mode in which the ordinary member of the congregation prays in the company of his fellows takes us directly to the heart of the matter.
Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayer, despite some surface resemblances, seek to accomplish three entirely distinct things. Christians through the Lord’s Supper partake of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ either literally (Catholic) or metaphorically (Protestant). Only Catholics know how transforming it is first to shed one’s particular sins through confession and absolution, and then to participate in the atonement of the collective sin of mankind through the Mass. But the power of the ritual stands in inverse proportion to the connection of liturgy to this life, for the Christian’s kingdom is not of this world. Christianity’s God-Man is a promise of ultimate redemption, as well as a link to life on earth, for Christ walked and preached among us. Europe’s tragedy was to confuse the earthly aspect of the God-Man with its myriad ethnicities and thus lapse back into paganism (Why Europe choose extinction, Apr 8, 2003). America, the great liquidator of nations, remains Christianity’s only real success. Because its purpose is so clear and its transforming power so elevated, Christian ritual by its nature is brief. The most devout endure it once a day. It can be prolonged with hymns, psalms, instruction and other devices, but its essence is direct communion with God, which can be sustained only for a few moments. Protestants quip that a long-winded preacher provides not an explanation, but rather a demonstration of eternity.
The statement applies in all seriousness to the Jews. In no other religion do the rank-and-file devote such time and energy to prayer. While Muslims pray five times daily, the thrice-daily Jewish service covers more than 10 times the text. The Sabbath morning service of the Jews endures four hours without interruption, and covers so much material that much is chanted in a manner that recalls a tape recorder on fast forward.
The Jews’ Sabbath marathon is all the more remarkable when one considers that it is an optional exercise, not a mandatory one as in the case of Islam. The four hours are taken up with study of the Pentateuch and Prophets, chanting of innumerable psalms, assorted hymns, and a sermon. Theological tourists can learn much from Christian observance, but should avoid looking in on Jewish liturgy. It is chanted entirely in Hebrew and flashes by so fast that it is impossible to keep up with in translation.
My understanding of Jewish liturgy derives entirely from Franz Rosenzweig, who observes that its object is to bring eternity into this world. “Blessed be God who plants eternal life among us,” intones the blessing that follows the Sabbath reading of each segment of the weekly portion of the Pentateuch. Like the Protestant joke, Jewish liturgy offers an experience rather than an explanation of eternity. The Jew is confident in his portion of immortality because he believes the Jews to be an eternal people. Because the Sabbath is a foretaste of the world to come, the observant Jew revels in devotion from Friday evening prayers at synagogue until the concluding ceremony at the next day’s dusk. Sin is death; confident in their eternal life, the Jews do not sense the waiting sting of death, that is, what the Christians call original sin, as I have argued elsewhere. The redemption of the Christians lies in the future, when Jesus shall return and establish His Kingdom on earth; of this blessed event the individual Christian can obtain no more than the briefest glance in the form of the Lord’s Supper. Jewish redemption consists simply of being Jewish, and the Jew already spends the seventh day in the World To Come.
Nothing contrasts more than Jewish and Christian liturgy, but a close parallel links the Lord’s Supper to the Jews’ prayer. As a substitute for the sacrifices that no longer can be performed at the Temple (destroyed in AD 70), Jews are required to recite the so-called Eighteen Benedictions, a matter of a few minutes. The rabbinical authorities of the first century drew on the 51st psalm, attributed to King David, to justify the substitution (“For thou desirest not sacrifice; or else I would give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise”). First to be humbled and then to be raised up with God the Father is the common essence of Jewish and Christian experience in worship.
What precisely is it that Muslims seek to accomplish when they pray five times daily? Thirty-two times a day they recite the Fatihah, the first seven lines of the Koran, which Maulana Muhammad Ali renders as follows:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful,
Master of the Day of Requital,
Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help,
Guide us on the right path,
The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors,
Not those upon whom wrath is brought down, nor those who go astray.
Not much else need be said. But what distinguishes Muslim prayer is not what is said but rather how it is said. Assuming the correct physical position in Muslim prayer cannot be separated from uttering the right words. Prayer is measured in a basic unit, the rak’a, which consists of stylized gestures (raising hands to ears, placing hands over the breast, bowing, touching the forehead to the ground) as well as specific phrases. Photographic examples and a clear explanation are found in The Muslim Prayer Book by Maulana Muhammad Ali (Lahore, 1938), widely available through Internet booksellers. Physical manifestations of submission are the sine qua non of Muslim congregational prayer. Praying in a mosque is an experience entirely different from attending Mass; curious Christians should try it for themselves.
There is a great deal more to Muslim prayer, as my bulging postbox reminds me. Muslims pray as often as they wish for private matters. There exists a set of “Muslim Psalms”, the al-Sahifat al-Sajjadiyya attributed to the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Ali ibn al-Husayn and favored by Shi’ites. Sufism encompasses an ancient mystical tradition. All this is well and good and entirely beside the point. No group or individual has a monopoly on prayer. God if He so wishes may reveal Himself to Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani or to my accountant. Our identity stems from our need for continuity, however, and this depends on a common culture through which we propose to propagate our memory. It is the common practice, not the exceptional ones, that defines our culture, religious or otherwise.
Christian liturgy re-enacts Jesus’ sacrifice in which the Christian takes vicarious part. The Jew who no longer can sacrifice an animal on the temple altar instead offers his broken and contrite heart. But the Muslim offers himself whole to the ummah (community). Allah need not humiliate Himself on the cross, like Jesus; there is no covenant between the deity and His people. Submission is unconditional.
As noted, the Christian risks mistaking the unique, individual God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, for the representative of a particular ethnicity, and thus slide back into paganism. Only American Christianity, as noted, has evaded this precipice. The Muslim submits himself unconditionally – to what? In the case of the Iraqi Shi’ites, it is the all-embracing grip of traditional society over which such men as Sistani preside.
Critics of Islam – in past essays I have cited Rosenzweig and Besancon – portray the religion as a throwback, a “monistic paganism” (Rosenzweig) or an “idolatry of the God of Israel” (Besancon). That cannot be quite right, for pagan religions express the aspirations for immortality of individual ethnic groups. The pagan knows not only that he will die, but that his people will die, that his language will be shut up in dusty books, and that a different people some day will occupy the hills and valleys where his people now live. “The love of the gentiles for their own ethnicity,” said Rosenzweig, “is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.”
Islam acknowledges no ethnicity (whether or not one believes that it favors Arabs). The Muslim submits – to what particular people? Not the old Israel of the Jews, nor the “New Israel” of the Christians, but to precisely what? Pagans fight for their own group’s survival and care not at all whom their neighbor worships. A universalized paganism is a contradiction in terms; it could only exist by externalizing the defensive posture of the pagan, that is, as a conquering movement that marches across the world crushing out the pagan practices of the nations and subjugating them to a single discipline.
If the individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as it surrounds him in its present circumstances, he submits to the expansionist movement. In that sense the standard communal prayer of Islam may be considered an expression of jihad. Again Rosenzweig: “Walking in the way of Allah means, in the strictest sense, the spread of Islam by means of the holy war. The piety of the Muslim finds its way into the world by obediently walking this way, by assuming its inherent dangers, by adhering to the laws prescribed for it.”
What threatens the ummah today is not the invasion of territory, but creative destruction: social mobility, equality of the sexes, global communications, and all the other pallbearers of traditional society. The encounter of mainstream Islamic practice with the creative destruction of the West is tragic. There can be found in parts of Islamic tradition many other things than this, as numerous readers observe, but it is a matter for Muslims alone to define their own mainstream.